November 4, 2014

Movie Review: John Wick

I remember the first time I saw the trailer for John Wick. My first reaction was happy to see Keanu Reeves back in an action movie. Yes, I like Reeves and think he did a really good job with his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi. Then my thoughts rolled the action around my mind, it looked pretty good. Then there were the story elements, a stolen car (a gorgeous 1969 Mustang), a dead wife, and a murdered dog. I immediately hoped that the thrust of this movie was a man getting revenge for his dog. Simple, elegant, emotionally gripping. Kind of like the reaction I had early in The Rover, hoping Guy Pearce simply wanted his car back. Sometimes simple is better.

John Wick was a wonderful cinematic experience. It is a movie that moves unencumbered by overly complicated plots. It is a movie that scales back the unnecessary elements, leaving behind the essence of what it is that we really want. It is a movie that lives and dies not by plot alone, but by execution of action, by style, by swagger, and by sheer force of will. It just turns out that driving force of will is personified on screen by Keanu Reeves, an actor whose general woodenness is the thing of legend. Even more surprising is that he is perfect for the role.

What we get is a surprisingly simple and straightforward tale of a retired assassin, the cliched best at what he does, who found love and got out of the business. If you have seen the trailer, then you know that tragedy hits and his wife dies. Fortunately, our grieving former killer receives one final gift from his wife, a puppy. It is a happy little thing that goes a long way towards helping him find solace, well, that and his Mustang.

With this opening out of the way, we are introduced to the cocky son of a Russian crime boss who takes a liking to the Mustang. This leads to the bad idea of stealing said car, which also results in the killing of the puppy. Big mistake. The killer inside John Wick is reawakened and he will have retribution. Follow him as he hunts down that crime boss's son and doesn't let anything deter him, not even his connection with the crime boss himself.

Like I said earlier, John Wick, the movie, is simple and elegant. It uses its opening moments to set up its emotional anchor and does a great job at it. John Wick, the character, is relatable, sympathetic, he may have been a cold blooded assassin, but he has found his heart, earned his humanity, and he is suffering a loss that he could not have imagined in his prior life. The only way he knows to react is to act. Reeves embodies him with steely determination laced with vulnerability and his stoicism (woodenness?) works perfectly.

So, with that anchor in place, it is time to wind up our hero and let him go. He digs up his guns and starts blasting. This leads to more of that simple elegance. Wick and the people he is after are all part of the same underworld, there is no hiding, and they all know the other's hiding places. We go to places, like a hotel where hit men and such can relax, a no kill zone if you will, that all go largely unexplained. We are expected to accept. In a time when everyone needs everything explained, this is refreshing in a simple action movie.

This movie lives with swagger, style, and attitude. To make all of that work, the action better be good, and it is. Seriously. Sure, there are smatterings of CGI to contend with and perhaps it is not quite as bloody as what the reality would be, but it is all staged in an exciting fashion that is quick, mean, and nasty, but is also cut in a way that you can comprehend it. The action is a lot clearer to see and we are given glimpses at what Reeves and his opponents are doing, there is a lot of snazzy close combat involving fists, feet, and guns. It all feels fresh and looks amazing.

This is how you make an action movie. It is among the best pure action movies to come out of Hollywood this year. Is it realistic? No, but it is believable. In the world that it creates, it plays by its rules, and it works. I was trapped by the emotion and enthralled by the action. Will you agree with me? Who knows, but I know what I saw and how it affected me.

It is interesting, when I mentioned in a Facebook post my initial reactions, I was asked if it was better than The Raid 2. The easy answer is no, but it is really more complicated than that. These are two very different action films. One is a bit more fantasy based, while the other is more grounded in a gritty realism. They are both action films, they both do their thing in wonderful fashion, but they are not easy to directly compare.

The bottom line with John Wick is that it is an inventive action film that does a good job of letting you see the action. I loved how the driving force was so simple. I loved the simplicity of everything surrounding the action, it let the action be the driving force, it makes sense. It is unadulterated, it is largely unexplained, and it is magical. No, it may not be “classic” but so what, this movie is an absolute joy to watch.

Highly Recommended.

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